When a Dangerous Sport Became Too Dangerous for Clif Bar
Clif Bar recently sponsored a highly acclaimed film about the history of Yosemite rock climbing. So why then abandon sponsorships with some of the film’s best climbers?
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Photo by Pete Mortimer
Dean Potter steps out onto the narrow blue rope stretched between towering granite cliffs, hundreds of feet above Yosemite Valley. The only sounds are his breath in short bursts and rushing water, somewhere far off in the distance. Potter takes a step and then another, his arms outstretched for balance. Below him is a surging waterfall, and beyond that, far in the distance, the tiny green pyramids of trees on the valley floor. He takes another tentative step, and then suddenly, Potter is falling. He’s screaming, and as he catches the rope, all that’s visible from the camera mounted on his head is a whirling background of rock, trees, sky, and rock as he comes to a stop. As quickly as his slackline walk started, he’s back sitting on the rope, scooting to the safety of solid ground.
Falls like that are nothing new to Potter, although he has never seriously injured himself while slacklining. And yet, he is one of five professional athletes untethered late last year by their sponsor, Emeryville-based Clif Bar. The company’s reasoning: The things these athletes did were getting too risky. Their exploits—jumping off mountains wearing parachutes, tightrope walking between cliffs, and ropeless 3,000-foot ascents in Yosemite National Park—were too extreme for the energy bar manufacturer to comfortably endorse.
“We no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net,” the company wrote in a statement. The five, who are primarily rock climbers, were dropped from Clif Bar’s roster of athletes after the release of the film Valley Uprising, which charts the history of rock climbing in Yosemite. It was a polarizing decision in the outdoor industry that prompted the question, When it comes to sponsorships, what level of risk is too much?
Over the years, Potter, 42, has been described as “King of the Dirtbags” and the “Outlaw King of Yosemite.” Over the past two decades he broke speed-climbing records and pushed the very boundaries of what defines rock climbing as a sport. Potter specializes in three areas: free-soloing (climbing without the assistance of ropes), slacklining (a modern-day version of tightrope walking, often done by climbers to practice balance), and wing-suit piloting (jumping off mountains in nylon suits with wings sewn between the arms and legs and a parachute used to land). He also mixes these sports. “Freebase” is his own creation of free-solo climbing and base jumping—essentially rock-climbing with a parachute as the only means of safety if one falls, or as Potter said, “I turned dying into flying.”
Potter’s climbs, jumps, and line-walks are some of the most palm-sweat-inducing clips in Valley Uprising. The film, which won grand prize awards at festivals in the United States and abroad, profiles climbing pioneers such as Royal Robbins and Warren Harding in the 1950s and Jim Bridwell in the 1960s, climbers who made first ascents of Yosemite’s granite peaks Half Dome and El Capitan. The film also celebrates the lawless attitude of the sport’s originators: hobo adventurers living in the park, evading rangers and even refusing rescue when snowed-in midway up El Capitan. So, it was a surprise to many when Clif Bar, one of the film’s main supporters, broke its sponsorship contracts with Potter, Cedar Wright, Steph Davis, Timmy O’Neill, and Alex Honnold, some of climbing’s present-day leaders.
“They definitely came down on me the hardest,” Potter said, noting that the sports he focuses on motivated the decision at Clif Bar, which according to the company’s statement, had been a point of concern for a year before the decision. Potter had been sponsored by the energy bar maker for the past decade. His sponsorships are typically multiyear contracts that include a salary, products, and travel support. Over the years Potter has had conflicts with other sponsors, too. He was dropped by brands Patagonia and Black Diamond in 2006 for his controversial climb of Arches National Park’s iconic Delicate Arch. But despite a wild reputation and footage of him in death-defying situations, Potter disagreed with Clif Bar’s portrayal of him. He is less-often recognized for his sense of spirituality in the outdoors. He meditates, is a self-described student of the Japanese samurai, and relies on an inner calm to balance the outward intensity of his sports. Potter’s focus on safety also means that he has never broken a bone or had a major injury doing these sports.
“Clif Bar didn’t get to know their artist,” he said. “They just looked at the film that made me look kind of crazy and said, ‘That dude is kind of far out there.’”
As a company, Clif Bar is renowned for its corporate responsibility and impressive employee benefits, including sourcing organic ingredients for its nutrition bars, paying workers fair wages, and even creating incentives for employees to buy electric vehicles, among other things. When it comes to sponsorships, things get more complex. The company said that athletes like Potter have reduced climbing’s margin for error to precisely zero. Since November, Clif Bar officials have declined to do interviews elaborating on their decision, including repeated attempts by this reporter. However, other athletes and brand representatives in the industry said that while the new variations of rock-climbing may look more dangerous, the level of risk hasn’t changed much over the years.
Moab, Utah, resident Steph Davis is another athlete who was dropped by Clif Bar after the release of Valley Uprising. Like Potter, to whom she was once married, her sports were some of those Clif Bar most objected to: free-solo climbing, base jumping, and wing-suit piloting. Unlike Potter, however, Davis’ perspective is more pragmatic. “Getting a sponsorship isn’t like getting a medal,” she said. “Primarily this is branding. This is business.”
Davis also is a writer but has supported herself as a sponsored athlete for the past 18 years. Footage of her in Moab shows the orange face of 400-foot Tombstone Rock. Davis appears as a tiny dot running toward the edge, and then jumps. She falls through space until a sudden parachute billows out, shepherding her to the safety of the desert floor. Davis understands the risks of these sports more than most athletes. In 2013 her second husband, Mario Richard, died in a wing-suit accident in the Italian Dolomite Mountains during a jump immediately following Davis.
“I feel like mountaineering has always been really dangerous,” she said. “I don’t feel like it’s become more dangerous.” Her sponsorships are all on a contract basis, and Davis said they’ve come and gone over the years and that she never expected to have any for her whole career. She said that in an era of investors and shareholders, “if a company finds themselves in a budget crunch, the athlete team will often be the first thing cut.”
Being a sponsored climber is different from other sports because the inherent risk of rock climbing—whether one argues that it’s new or longstanding—means athletes typically aren’t asked to do anything. “Nobody’s ever been like, ‘Hey, Dean, could you risk it a little bit more?’” Potter said. Most of these athletes receive products and travel stipends to attend events and give climbing clinics. A few get salaries that allow them to climb full time. For her work, Davis goes on climbing or base-jumping trips, blogs, and uses social media, and sporadically checks in with her brands.